Works should be allowed to reach the widest audience that is appropriate for their theme and treatment, and adults should, as far as possible, be free to choose what they see, provided that it remains within the law and is not potentially harmful. The BBFC works on several major principles in determining the age rating of a given work:
- Whether the material is in conflict with the law, or has been created through the commission of a criminal offence
- Whether the material, either on its own, or in combination with other content of a similar nature, may cause any harm at the age rating concerned. This includes not just any harm that may result from the behaviour of potential viewers, but also any ‘moral harm’ that may be caused by, for example, desensitising a potential viewer to the effects of violence, degrading a potential viewer’s sense of empathy, encouraging a dehumanised view of others, suppressing pro-social attitudes, encouraging anti-social attitudes, reinforcing unhealthy fantasies, or eroding a sense of moral responsibility. Especially with regard to children, harm may also include retarding social and moral development, distorting a viewer’s sense of right and wrong, and limiting their capacity for compassion
- Whether the availability of the material, at the age group concerned, is clearly unacceptable to broad public opinion. It is on this ground, for example, that the BBFC intervenes in respect of bad language
- The context in which an issue (such as sex, language or violence) is presented is central to the question of its acceptability. The work's target audience - who is likely to want to watch this film, and to whom does it 'speak' – is also taken into account
- The overall tone of a work may also affect the final decision. While the presentation of specific issues such as sex and violence may not be problematic at a particular rating, if the work has a generally dark or unsettling tone that may disturb the audience at that level, then it may receive a more restrictive rating. The impact of a work (ie, how it makes the audience feel) is also taken into account, for example in relation to horror films where threat may be more significant than violence
Alongside considering the relevant legislation, the main age rating issues that need to be taken into account include:
The issue of violence in films is one which has tested Examiners since the earliest days of cinema.
Public attitudes to sex have changed considerably over the years, and recent public consultations in 2005 and 2009 indicate a greater tolerance of portrayals of sex on screen.
The BBFC's strict policy on potentially harmful representations of sexual violence in film and on DVD remains firmly in place.
Films depicting drug misuse have been a perennial concern of the BBFC (and society) for many years.
Historically, the BBFC has often treated horror as a special case and in the late 1930s actually introduced an H for 'Horror' rating to warn the public of the likely content of such works.
Age rating decisions will take into account any detailed portrayal of criminal and violent techniques, and any glamorisation of easily accessible weapons, such as knives.
Potentially offensive content, relating to such matters as race, gender, religion, disability or sexuality, may arise in a wide range of works, and the age rating decision will take account of the strength or impact of its inclusion.